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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction


Miguel Syjuco

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To purchase Ilustrado

Title: Ilustrado
Author: Miguel Syjuco
Genre: Novel
Written: (2010)
Length: 304 pages
Availability: Ilustrado - US
Ilustrado - UK
Ilustrado - Canada
Ilustrado - France
Die Erleuchteten - Deutschland
Ilustrado - Italia
  • Man 'Asian' Literary Prize, 2008

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Our Assessment:

B : free-wheeling, far-reaching pastiche

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Financial Times . 5/6/2010 Angel Gurria-Quintana
Globe & Mail A 7/5/2010 Charles Foran
The Guardian A 29/5/2010 Joseph O'Connor
The NY Times Book Rev. . 3/6/2010 Raymond Bonner
The New Yorker . 24/5/2010 .
The Observer . 27/6/2010 Adam Mars-Jones
Philippine Daily Inquirer A+ 1/12/2008 Antonio A. Hidalgo
Quill & Quire A 5/2010 Lisa Foad
TLS . 4/6/2010 Ben Jeffrey
The Washington Post B+ 6/5/2010 Michael Dirda

  From the Reviews:
  • "Beyond Ilustradoís furious skewering of Filipino elites is writing that bristles with surprising imagery. (...) An unruly and energising novel, filled with symmetries and echoes that only become apparent in its closing pages, Ilustrado pushes readers into considering matters of authenticity, identity and belonging." - Angel Gurria-Quintana, Financial Times

  • "It is certainly an extraordinary debut, at once flashy and substantial, brightly charming and quietly resistant to its own wattage. (...) Miguel Syjuco has worked out, in a sense, the project for a new kind of Asian identity, one that can simultaneously sort through the messes of the colonial past while staying alert to our emerged century of almost too easy East/West flow and too many realignments of formerly solid borders. More remarkably, he has done so in an exuberant, funny novel that neither takes its grand ambitions too seriously, nor pretends to be measuring itself by any less a scale of intent." - Charles Foran, Globe & Mail

  • "(A) dazzling and virtuosic adventure in reading (.....) The narrative is organised with immense confidence and skill. (...) Admittedly, there are moments when the book's astonishing cleverness slightly gets in the way, becoming the thing you admire more than the deft characterisation. Syjuco is a writer already touched by greatness, but his truly uncommon gifts delight all the more when they are permitted to emerge subtly, without overture. But this is a remarkably impressive and utterly persuasive novel." - Joseph O'Connor, The Guardian

  • "Ilustrado is filled with complexities, layering fiction with fiction -- and non fiction. (...) Ilustrado is being presented as a tracing of 150 years of Philippine history, but itís considerably more than that. Just as this country is searching for its identity, its author seems to be searching for his own." - Raymond Bonner, The New York Times Book Review

  • "The result is a self-referential collage encompassing both sociopolitical polemic and lighter fare, such as a memorable thread of bawdy jokes." - The New Yorker

  • "The pleasures of Ilustrado are not in the rather creaky evocations of the past nor in a rhetoric that grows increasingly sententious as the book goes on, but in its sophisticated and seductive evocation of modern Manila. The book displays in a kaleidoscope a culture that has already been through the mincer called history any number of times." - Adam Mars-Jones, The Observer

  • "(A)n exceedingly complicated and ambitious work. (...) Like Manila traffic, the novelís narrative congeals into ordered chaos. (...) With an unflinching gaze, the novel inexorably, albeit sporadically, builds a most critical profile of Filipino elite. (...) The epilogue is a fitting ending to the chaos so ably rendered by the novel. It surprises, explains much, but also further nuances the multiple visions that abound throughout the book. The language of the denouement, by itself, is a singular achievement that is certain to satisfy readers. (...) It is a most cerebral novel that dares to reflect the Philippines and Filipinos at so many levels and dimensions. Through virtuoso use of language and a dazzling array of fictional techniques, it achieves all of its lofty objectives." - Antonio A. Hidalgo, Philippine Daily Inquirer

  • "Ilustrado is not a crime novel. Itís an illustrious, evocative, intricate story that chronicles 150 years of Philippine history by employing a wide array of narrative mechanisms (.....) Ilustrado is a staggering, indelible debut." - Lisa Foad, Quill & Quire

  • "Ilustrado is built like a carousel (.....) Nonetheless, it is all tightly held together (.....) Not everything works: Ilustrado takes on two of the challenges that bedevil young novelists -- how to smooth net-speak into prose, and how to write a good scene set in a nightclub -- and fails at both. (...) But spots of rawness in such an engaging first novel indicate how good Syjuco's next books could be." - Ben Jeffrey, Times Literary Supplement

  • "(W)ildly entertaining (.....) Throughout, the book has been an example of "literary bricolage" -- bringing together Filipino jokes, transcripts from "The Burley Raconteur" blog, real history and people, made-up footnotes and the narrator's increasingly nightmarish dreams and experiences, some heightened by snorts of cocaine. In its last pages, however, the book seems to be going in several directions at once, as it grows phantasmagoric and then suddenly stops, before a final, not wholly unexpected, revelation. Ilustrado is, then, more a novel of wonderful parts than a completely successful whole." - Michael Dirda, The Washington Post

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Ilustrado is basically a novel presenting the lives of two more or less expatriate Filipino writers, but there's little about it that's very basic. The writers are Crispin Salvador, found floating the Hudson in New York City in 2002, and 'Miguel Syjuco', an acolyte who is writing his biography, Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived. Much of the novel is presented as this Syjuco's first-person account, in which he describes his own relationship with Salvador, the research he is conducting for the biography he is working on (and where it leads him), as well as much of his own life-story -- one strikingly similar to that of the actual author Miguel Syjuco ..... Interspersed throughout the narrative there are, however, also many excerpts from both the biography-in-progress, Crispin Salvador: Eight Lives Lived and many of Salvador's own works -- which range from his own autobiographical Autoplagiarist to a wide variety of fiction, from pulp-thriller to literarily ambitious, to the libretto for a "disco opera". There are also excerpts from newspaper articles, blogs posts, and The Paris Review-interview with Salvador.
       The novel is an enormous, many-voiced work of pastiche -- the many voices including Salvador's own many very different ones, as he employed any number of different styles. There are also some mysteries: the circumstances of Salvador's death, for one -- was it suicide ? murder ? And there is also that missing manuscript that he had been working on so long, The Bridges Ablaze, "the masterpiece that would return him to the pantheon".
       Both Salvador and Syjuco are sons of a politically engaged elite, whose families hope they will embark on political careers as well -- to the extent that: "before young Crispin could speak or toddle he was already branded the 'future president for a future nation'". Both wind up going abroad (and wind up in New York), which is seen by many as a sort of betrayal. As one local poet in the Philippines puts it:

"But sitting at home, writing stories ... " (She raises her eyebrow.) "... that's a luxury ! And to write in English ..." (She shakes her head dismissively.) "... that's the height of luxuriating arrogance ! But to sit at home in your Greenwich Village penthouse, living off the Salvador family inheritance, writing in English about the Philippines for the entertainment of foreigners ..." (She rolls her eyes.) "... well, even the young writers here haven't yet invented a slur for someone as heinous as that."
       (Though the unkindest cut of all comes from an ostensible fan, who allows that Salvador is one of her favorite local writers -- but: "He's no Paulo Coelho. The Alchemist changed my life.")
       Ilustrado presents the Philippines from within and without, using its two characters that have left the country but are still closely tied to it -- through family, culture, and history -- to shine a light on some of the darker nooks and crannies, and a corrupted system. Both characters are almost chameleon-like in the multiple guises they appear in: the title Syjuco chooses for his Salvador-biography is appropriate, since Salvador did live many very different lives. Similarly, Syjuco, too, takes on a variety of roles in a variety of circles, ranging from typical college student to expatriate black sheep. Though useful in addressing so many different facets of Filipino life, in the Philippines and abroad, it's also one of the books weaknesses, these two main characters anything but fixed, and too often too readily adapted to meet yet another purpose. (A novel can probably readily sustain one such character, and the Bildungsroman-progress of Syjuco alone is plausible enough, but the even more flexible Salvador (and his very varied writings) serves too many ends too easily.)
       The political class and the writing class are particularly well (and often cruelly) captured, including in such simple summaries as:
These are the literati of the Philippines: the merry, mellowed, stalwartly middle-class pactitioners of the luxury of literature in the language of the privileged. Many are former Maoists.
       Salvador has a nice rant about Filipino writing, too, which includes the observation:
Our heartache for home is so profound we can't get over it, even when we're home and never left. Our imaginations grow moss. So every Filipino novel has a scene about the glory of cooking rice, or the sensuality of tropical fruit. And every short story seems to end with misery or redemptive epiphanies. And variations thereof. An underlying cultural faith in deus ex machina. God coming from the sky to make things right or more wrong.
       Ilustrado is, of course, a work meant to free Filipino writing from these limitations -- to batter down the self-set walls, or at least try. By presenting so much, Syjuco suggests some of the possibilities for moving ahead and beyond -- but the presentation also has the feel of just throwing a lot out there, in almost hit and miss manner (just like the examples of Salvador's writing show the most varied approaches, from true popular pulp to a Palanca Award-winning story taking off "from the work of Alain Robbe-Grillet") -- making for a different kind of uncertainty. (Syjuco certainly seems to recognize this, to: his alter-ego in the novel is someone who is still in the process of finding himself, constantly expressing uncertainty about his actions.)
       An often appealing but ultimately too far-flung and -reaching pastiche, Ilustrado is an interesting portrait of a class and nation, though generally it is more satisfying in its parts than its whole.

- M.A.Orthofer, 23 May 2010

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Ilustrado: Reviews: Miguel Syjuco: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Filipino author Miguel Syjuco wasborn in 1976.

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© 2010-2022 the complete review

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